Trinidad and Tobago: Authorities have no justification for failure to respect international obligations over asylum

The Trinidad and Tobago authorities must stop criminalizing the peaceful protest of migrants and refugees and find human rights-based solutions for them consistent with its existing obligations under international law, Amnesty International said today.

In response to official statements from Trinidad and Tobago’s Attorney General, Faris Al-Rawi, suggesting that the country was not yet legally required to establish systems for addressing the growing number of migrants and refugees reaching the Caribbean island, as it has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said:

“The Attorney General is mistaken in his understanding of Trinidad and Tobago’s obligations under international law. Having acceded to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, the country is bound by international law to uphold the terms of these treaties. This means it must respect the fundamental human right to seek asylum and never return people to countries where their lives or freedom are at risk.”

The Attorney General made the statements after Trinidad and Tobago’s authorities reportedly arrested 78 Cuban asylum applicants and refugees, who had been peacefully protesting their human rights situation in the country outside the UN House in Port of Spain, reigniting debates on the growing number of migrants and refugees in the country.

According to news reports, the Cubans detained on 16 November were charged with obstruction of the free passageway under the Summary Offences Act and sentenced to two days in prison. When asked if Trinidad and Tobago was in discussions with the Cuban authorities to deport the Cubans, the Attorney General said the Minister of National Security was the lead on that issue.

Trinidad and Tobago must respect the fundamental human right to seek asylum and never return people to countries where their lives or freedom are at risk
Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International

Trinidad and Tobago is party to the the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees, which the country acceded to in November 2000. As such, it is obliged to fully protect the rights of those in need of international protection. Although Trinidad and Tobago has not yet adopted national legislation to guide its treatment of people in need of international protection, it is a rule of customary international law that a state may not invoke the provisions of its internal law, or lack thereof, to justify its failure to uphold the terms of a treaty.

In 2014, Trinidad and Tobago’s cabinet adopted a national policy to address asylum and refugee matters. The policy states that recognized refugees should be entitled to a series of rights including travel documents, identity papers, authorization to work, and right to education. In practice, those who apply for asylum or are granted refugee status are not allowed to work, leaving many destitute, and they are not permitted to send their children to school. The Cubans arrested had been protesting this situation.

“By criminalizing migrants and refugees who were protesting the country’s very failure to uphold human rights, the authorities in Trinidad and Tobago are taking a short-sighted approach to the growing numbers of people reaching their shores in need of international protection,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas.

“Rather than locking up people who only want to rebuild their lives in safety, the authorities should build on the nation’s existing policy on asylum and refugees and put in place legislation to help it fulfill its existing obligations under international law.”

International law establishes that states must not return people to countries where their life or freedom would be threatened, or where they could be subject to torture or other human rights violations. Nevertheless, in April, Trinidad and Tobago deported over 80 Venezuelans, potentially in violation of international law.

Almost all states in Latin America have national legislation on refugees.

Background

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees had registered 2,286 people of concern in Trinidad and Tobago at the end of 2017. The majority were Venezuelans, with Cubans representing the second largest group of asylum applicants.

Amnesty International has documented severe restrictions on the right to freedom of expression in Cuba for decades, while tens of thousands of Cubans have left their homeland in recent years. Amnesty International’s report, Your Mind is in Prison, published in 2017 and based on interviews with over 60 Cuban migrants, documents Cuba’s ongoing mechanisms of control over freedom of expression in the country and the risks faced by Cubans who dare to speak out.

In March, Amnesty International released Emergency Exit, which documented how violations of the right to health, as well as difficulties accessing food and other basic services, are putting thousands of people’s lives at risk in Venezuela and fuelling a regional forced migration crisis.

In September, Amnesty International published an open letter to regional governments calling on them and the international community to agree on urgent measures to guarantee the rights of Venezuelans needing international protection. It also issued a report detailing the failure of the Curaçao government to establish effective procedures for people seeking asylum in light of the growing number of Venezuelan nationals in need of international protection.

If you would like more information or to arrange an interview, contact Duncan Tucker: +52 (1) 55 4848 8266, duncan.tucker@amnesty.org